Let me tell you a secret.
Once upon a time, I didn’t think I had what it took to be where I am right now.
I always fashioned myself a decent writer, and I’ve always had a passion for sports. Even after my very abbreviated days actually playing came to an end, somehow I figured I’d find a way to put those two passions together in some capacity, but I never imagined myself being much more than slightly decent.
Don’t ask me why. I guess most writers sort of have that built-in insecurity about who we are and what we do. Call it part of our charm.
I’ve seen some of the best, most renowned scribes — sports and otherwise — call themselves barely average, despite having a following and cache of awards, honors and recognition that says otherwise.
But when I first began my career as a sports journalist in earnest back in 1998 as a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I didn’t have any of the high school journalism accolades that some of my fellow freshmen colleagues arrived to Lincoln with. I didn’t even really consider a career in journalism until taking a class my senior year.
All I wanted to do was be on the sidelines at Memorial Stadium to say I witnessed the football birth of the next Tommie Frazier or see the next national champion Huskers squad up close and personal. Awards and recognition were never things I expected.
That’s why when I won my first sports writing award in 2000, it caught me by immense surprise. I’d written a column about former Husker and Philadelphia Eagles running back Correll Buckhalter on how he quietly became one of the school’s top all-time rushers.
I remember having a tussle with my campus paper editor about a couple of the lines in my column that he thought were silly. He wanted me to restructure them or take them out altogether, but because it was my own voice in a column, he didn’t press the issue.
That piece won best sports column for all Big 12 Conference student newspapers that year. And honestly I don’t even remember submitting it, and am not completely sure how they got hold of it. But I remember that award being my first, “I really can do this at a high level” moment.
I had my second such moment almost 15 years later when I finally jumped into the sportswriting business full time after years of dilly-dallying around with it, going back and forth between it and my ministry as a Christian preacher and pastor.
This time I won awards for photography — someone go tell my old photojournalism professor that so he can get a laugh since I failed his class twice in the days of dark room film development — sports feature writing and, of course, sports columns which I became particularly fond of writing.
I won at both the Georgia Press Association’s Better Newspaper contest and in the Georgia Sportswriters Association’s contest. The latter was introduced to me by my former sports editor Derrick Mahone.
He was probably the first person whose professional opinion I respected who actually affirmed that I was good enough to do this beyond just being an auxiliary writer on someone’s sports staff. He did that by encouraging me to enter several pieces into the GSWA contest and assuring me that “if you don’t win this year, it’s just a matter of time.”
He was right. Seven more awards over the next couple of years caused my confidence to soar, and I began to believe I could be somebody’s sports editor one day.
But even with buoyed assurance in my own ability, I’ve never been able to shake off the shock and awe that comes whenever someone in this business who is well accomplished and highly respected takes a liking to my work and paints a picture of what I can do beyond what I see in myself.
That happened again a couple months ago when Stan Awtrey, veteran Atlanta area sports journalist and former assistant sports editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s during the paper’s sports reporting heyday, shared with me that he wanted to see me take over leadership of the Georgia Sportswriters Association — a position he’d held for quite a while in an organization that’s been around for a good bit.
At first I thought he was joking, but when I realized he was serious, I couldn’t help but wonder, why me?
He acknowledged the massive changes in the industry over the last 15-20 years and felt that, after watching my work, both here at The Covington News and at the other publications I either started or contributed to, he believed that I could help pump fresh life into the association and lead it into this new, digital, multimedia world of sports journalism, while helping identify and build up young, emerging talent.
That last piece really stuck with me. I do not, at all, claim to be a know-it-all authority on what it takes to create good, quality sports journalism in the digital age. But I know what’s worked well for me in the places that I’ve served, including Covington. And I’ve always had a passion to help pass what I know along to other hungry sports writers who are willing to listen and then build upon what I share.
That’s something I love to do as sports editor here in Covington, which is the reason why, as long as I’m here, you’ll always see a smattering of different bylines and photo credits gracing our sports pages. Sure, I could do it all, but why not provide opportunities — an incubator, if you will — to help give the industry’s young guns an opportunity to shine while they learn?
So after a little prayerful contemplation, I decided to take Stan up on his offer. No, I’m not leaving The News. I love it here and feel like we’re really just getting warmed up with making this the state’s best small-paper sports section.
But I humbly accept the challenge of reimagining GSWA and allowing it to work as both a showcase for this state’s ample sports journalism talent and a think-tank and incubator for Georgia sports journalists to see how we can stay ahead of the curve and thrive — not just survive — in an ever-changing, unpredictable industry.
I’m excited for this new journey, as it will grant me the chance to learn more about and improve my craft while connecting with journalists more seasoned than me. But I’m doubly thrilled about it because it extends my ability to connect our state’s newsrooms to the next generation of leading sports journalists in ways that can help both these aspiring sports scribes and our local papers.
Most of all, it will grant me the opportunity to find another young Gabriel Stovall. A sports journalist long on talent but short on confidence who found his voice and the confidence to build a future as a journalist because of the affirmation that came in the form of an award presented to him by a group of peers who saw more in him than he saw in himself.
No, I don’t do what I do for awards or recognitions or pats on the back. But I can’t lie. Sometimes those affirmations are exactly what we need to catapult our confidence and our careers.
Suffice it to say, I’m looking forward to this new opportunity to give that very thing to others, just as it was given to me.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GabrielStovall1.